Pumpkin growers still pumped up for harvest

URBAN FARMER: A cool summer put paid to a new Irish record for giant pumpkins, but a festival next month will still draw exceptional…

URBAN FARMER:A cool summer put paid to a new Irish record for giant pumpkins, but a festival next month will still draw exceptional squashes from at home and abroad

AS THE COUNTRY’S most competitive gardeners will sadly confirm, this has not been a vintage year for pumpkin growers, with the summer’s cooler-than-average temperatures and lower-than- average light levels resulting in a slower-than-average growth rate for this heat-loving member of the cucurbit family. That is, of course, if the plants managed to survive the vicious summer gales that left many torn pumpkin stems and bruised or shredded leaves behind them. A measure of what a difficult season it was can be seen in the fact that even the pumpkin plants growing in the shelter of the Office of Public Works’ walled garden really struggled this summer, tempting OPW gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn to write off any possibility of a decent crop.

“We raised the plants from seed in the glasshouse earlier this spring and then planted them out in early June, just as the weather took a turn for the worse. By mid- July, the plants were so far behind that we really weren’t holding out much hope for our 2011 pumpkin harvest,” says Quinn. “We just didn’t think they’d recover from such a poor start.”

But despite their misgivings, the OPW gardeners stubbornly persevered with their careful pruning and feeding routine, continuing to nip out any unwanted baby pumpkins as quickly as they formed, and treating the plants to a weekly potash-rich liquid feed to encourage the fruit to swell and ripen. Two months later the results have been far better than they could have hoped for. “They won’t break any records, but given the summer we’ve just had, they’ve done all right,” says Downey. “We finally stopped feeding them about two weeks ago because at that stage we knew they weren’t going to get any bigger. Instead, we removed some of the leaves from around the fruit to expose them to the light. To ripen and colour up properly, pumpkins need sunshine on their skins. We’re also netting them to protect them from bird damage as, for some reason, the crows are intent on getting at them.”


The OPW gardeners are growing just two different varieties of pumpkin this year – one being the high-yielding and appropriately-named ‘Dependable’, which produces handsome, egg-yolk-yellow fruit at just the right size to make a nice jack-o’-lantern. The other is the now-legendary ‘Atlantic Giant’, the variety first bred by the late Canadian farmer Howard Dill (aka “the Pumpkin King”). It was Dill’s lifelong work in breeding giant pumpkins that led him to develop Dill’s Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, the variety from which all modern record-breaking pumpkins are descended and the reason why world records first began to tumble, going from 493.5lb(224kg) in 1985 (Howard Dill) to the first world record over 1,000lb (1,061lb, Nathan and Paula Zehr in 1996), the first over 1,500lb (1,502lb, Ron Wallace in 2006) and finally (at the time of writing) to Chris Stevens’ 1,810.5lb effort as weighed in Minnesota last October.

The walled garden’s Atlantic Giants are not, it should be pointed out, quite in that category of heavyweights. “I reckon that the heaviest pumpkin growing in the garden this year is probably about 25kg (55lb), and that’s a ‘Dependable’ rather than an ‘Atlantic Giant’,” says Quinn, adding that ‘Atlantic Giant’ pumpkins grown outdoors in this country will never reach the size or weight of those grown in warmer, sunnier climes. “We just don’t have the right climate to grow really giant pumpkins. It’s too cool and rainy in Ireland for them to grow to really huge sizes.”

Unless, of course, you’re able to give your plants some protection from the elements, in which case the man to beat is Micheál Byrne, the Louth teenager who holds the Irish record for the heaviest pumpkin and who always gives his plants the shelter of a large polytunnel. Mind you, he also diligently prepares the soil in his polytunnel and spends months conscientiously and skilfully pruning, feeding and watering his plant. Even then, this year’s warm spring and cool summer have not helped Byrne’s chances of beating his 2009 record, which stands at a whopping 936lb. “This spring was a bit too hot for the young plants, and then after that it was just too cool, so I don’t expect to set any new records this year,” he says, adding that while he hasn’t measured his pumpkin recently, he expects it to weigh in at somewhere around 700-800lb.

Just as he has done for the past number of years, Byrne is planning to bring his giant pumpkin to the formal weigh-off at the Virginia Pumpkin Festival (virginia.ie), the now-annual event that will take place this year from October 28th to 31st in Virginia, Co Cavan. There, he’ll be joined by pumpkin growers from all around the country as well as from abroad, for, according to the European Giant Vegetable Growers Association (egvga.webs.com), the festival’s organisers are offering free flights, accommodation and transport costs to any grower with a pumpkin heavier than 600lb.

Be warned, however, that professional competition rules such as this one are extremely strict. Don’t, for example, consider siphoning water into your giant pumpkin like one disgraced grower in Britain did. Be aware, also, that no matter how utterly gigantic and fantastically beautiful your pumpkin is, the tiniest of holes (if it penetrates right through to the cavity) will disqualify it from the competition.

If all that sounds like rather a lot of hard work, then maybe it’s time to consider other forms of competitive vegetable or fruit growing. So, given the Irish climate, might I suggest instead a spot of competitive potato growing? Admittedly, it’s not quite as glamorous a pursuit as that of growing giant pumpkins, but just consider the many pluses – in particular the advantage of having generation upon generation of hard-earned experience in our favour. And unlike Chris Stevens’s 2010 world-record-holding 1,810.5lb giant pumpkin, the world record for the heaviest potato stands at a relatively miserly 10.98lb, as established by UK-based Peter Glazebrook earlier this year. As a nation of spud growers, I reckon we should be able to beat that.

What to . . . sow, plant and do now

Outdoors: sow direct into the ground (to possibly cover later in the month), or sow in modules for later planting in the ground:Winter lettuce; Broad Beans; round seeded peas; some varieties of non-hearting cabbage greens such as Greensleeves; claytonia*; corn salad*; landcress*; spinach*; radishes, overwintering onions and salad onions. It's still worth chancing some sowings of a fast growing early carrot variety, covered with cloches; oriental greens; mustards such as Red and Green Frills; rocket; and fast-growing salad mixes*. You can still sow green manures on any empty ground not covered with a crop; field beans and winter tares (both will also fix "free" nitrogen from the air); mustard (a brassica) and Hungarian winter grazing rye.

In a greenhouse, polytunnel or large cold frame: you can sow all of the above, which will grow more quickly in the warmer environment.And mangetout Oregon Giant and sugar peas such as Delikett and Delikata – direct or in large pots – all for pea shoots now, taking two or three cuts of shoots then leaving to grow on in spring. With a little warmth you can also still sow flat-leaf parsley (hardier than curled varieties). (Sow all seeds thinly.) Garlic cloves can be planted now, both outside and in tunnels, for an early crop of big bulbs next year. Bear in mind that these are not hard and fast rules, as the weather is unpredictable and conditions may vary widely. Check nickykylegardening.com for further details.

* Sow in early October

Do:Clear/manure/cover empty beds, plant up polytunnel with winter crops, plant out any well-established, module-raised plants, protect vulnerable crops against butterfly/slug/snail damage, finish planting strawberry runners.

Apologies to readers who tried in vain to buy a copy of Louis Smith's book Forest Fungi in Ireland,mentioned last week. The book is no longer in print